Courtesy of albertpujolsclub.com

The moment the ball nestled safely within the comfort of St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Allen Craig’s glove — signaling his team’s victory over Texas in game seven of the World Series — the countdown to Spring Training officially began. The stage is set, however, for the time between the end of the 2011 postseason and the start of baseball in 2012 to bring much more excitement than past winters.

Headlined by several of the biggest stars in baseball, free agency will be a source of instant rebuilding for teams with otherwise bleak outlooks. Even the lowly Chicago Cubs could walk away from the off-season with puffed-out chests and confidence paralleling that of serious contenders.

Shortstop Jose Reyes and first basemen Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols are the first power hitters in the free agency class that come to mind. The faces of their respective  franchises will be subject to bidding wars and, as pitcher Cliff Lee showed us last year, to whatever whimsical thoughts may influence a player’s decision.

The pitching side of free agency is somewhat disappointing in comparison to the position player market. C.C. Sabathia, presumed to be one of the biggest question marks this off-season, recently elected to re-sign with the New York Yankees. Beyond Sabathia, teams will be left to shore up their rotation with pitchers like C.J. Wilson, who’s coming off a disappointing postseason (0-3 with a 5.79 ERA). After that, there is an even steeper drop off in talent, as Yu Darvish, a 25-year-old Japanese phenomenon, may generate the most interest from teams.

Especially with no NBA to distract the media, eyes will be on Pujols, Fielder, Reyes and David Wright (who has been the subject of trade rumors throughout the 2011 season, as the New York Mets are unlikely to retain both Reyes and Wright). While their current respective teams will make every effort to convince their superstars to stay, other teams will scramble to break the bank in order to accommodate the free agents.

Theo Epstein, the Chicago Cubs’ new president of baseball operations, is sure to make a splash with his new team, which is perfect seeing that the Cubs need a big move or two to regain their status as a serious threat.  They are sure to be in the Albert Pujols sweepstakes, but I’d like to think Pujols has too much dignity to sign with the Cardinals’ rival.  So in all likelihood, the Cubs will “settle” for Fielder — although it’s hardly settling if you’re getting 40 homers and 120 RBIs in return.

As for Pujols, he’ll have the entire Cardinals fan base holding their breath, praying that the icon will re-sign with St. Louis.  I’d say the Cardinals are the favorite to sign Pujols, but several franchises will be right there in the hunt.

The Washington Nationals have shown willingness to spend big money with last year’s gargantuan contract for Jayson Werth, and, with pitching phenomenon Stephen Strasburg looking completely healthy and ready to take the league by storm, the Nats appear to be one piece away from a solid playoff run. If they get Pujols, the Nationals may emerge as a team to beat for the first time in the young club’s history.  Pujols still could don white and red in 2012, but it may be in Washington.

While the Milwaukee Brewers have shown interest in the shortstop, I don’t see Reyes leaving New York. However, if he were to go anywhere else, it may be just across town to the deep-pocketed Yankees.

As Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter’s decline has been well documented, and third baseman Alex Rodriguez’s health is inconsistent, it would be wise to make this move. In no way am I suggesting that Jeter’s or Rodriguez’s time in New York has expired, but  I could see Reyes starting at short with Jeter sliding to third, bumping A-Rod to designated hitter.

I’ve only touched the surface of the 2011 free agency class. Whatever the off-season brings, the next few months will bless fans with something much more than just World Series recaps and countdowns until pitchers and catchers report.

McAndrew is a member of the class of 2015.

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